Scott Pelley Explains the World: A Review of CBS Evening News

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As I sat down to do this assignment, it struck me that this is probably the first time I have watched a network newscast in years, and even then I’m not exactly doing so voluntarily. I couldn’t help but wonder if I were being unfair to network news. As it turns out, the answer to that question is both yes and no.

(It is frustratingly difficult to embed CBS video…here’s a link to the video I watched: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/1118-government-urges-broader-recall-of-defective-air-bags-band-aid-charity-regroups-to-fight-ebola/ )

I was greeted by the somber face of Scott Pelley as he detailed the program’s agenda against the backdrop of photos and somewhat overly-dramatic music. I’ve been watching for only around 7 minutes and I’ve already noticed that one of Mr. Pelley’s favorite things to say about a story is that it is historic: the recent Synagogue attacks in Israel are “the worst in recent history” (and while they are no doubt tragic and horrific, so are many of the atrocities occurring in that region. I don’t know that I’d call this particular one “historic”) and temperatures across the United States are at “historic lows for this time of year.” This seems like a rather vague description to me, but he’s said it twice already and the music is increasingly dramatic so I’m paying attention.

The coverage was pretty standard. They packed a lot of information into 20 minutes, broken up at around 3 minutes per story. The stories themselves were all fairly newsworthy, although I think the order of importance was a little flawed and there was an odd story here or there. The program jumped between domestic and international issues with no real rhyme or reason: the first four stories were about defective airbags in the South (domestic), the “Wall of Winter” covering much of the US in snow (domestic), the Synagogue attacks in Israel (international), and another instance of domestic abuse within the NFL (domestic again). There was also a very strange balance of stories with a wider scope (such as the the nationwide cold spell) and oddly focused ones (such as the a story about an elderly couple whose house was destroyed when a plane inexplicably crashed into their living room).

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I was extremely surprised that they glossed almost entirely over the issues in Ferguson, only devoting about a minute of time to them, but spent a solid 3 minutes talking about how a Democratic congresswoman is losing votes in her home state because of a bill on an oil pipeline (no information on the actual pipeline itself, which seems like the more important story to me). Priorities?

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by how much context each story gave. At least 4 stories (the Synagogue attacks, the defective airbag story, the terrorist reform center piece about Saudi Arabia, and the Rockstar collaboration to raise money for the Ebola crisis) all had a solid 30 to 40 seconds of contextual information that dealt either with background, how the story will move forward, or both. As someone who has unlimited access to background information on the Internet, I didn’t think they could one-up me on knowledge, but I learned more than I was expecting to. Well done, CBS.

That being said, I also learned that transitions between stories are some of the most awkwardly uncomfortable things to watch. Scott Pelley deserves kudos for his valiant attempts at casually switching from a discussion of brutal murder to concerns about a few feet of snow. I honestly can’t think of any way to make that work.

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The newscast often jumped from person to person as well, including field reporters, experts, and a weatherman. My personal favorite was Holly Williams, who was reporting on a terrorist reform center in Saudi Arabia. The story itself was very interesting, but what really made me cringe and (although I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it) laugh inwardly was her thinly veiled tone of absolute disbelief and derision when speaking about what she dubs the “spectacular failures” of what is more like a “hotel” than a “prison.” The look on her face at the center’s proud display of “rehabilitated” terrorists’ artwork mirrored my own feelings, and her incredibly professional dedication in the face of an interviewee remarking that he would have undoubtedly tried to murder her had he encountered her prior to his incarceration is impressive beyond words.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/how-saudi-arabia-reforms-terrorists/

Overall, I thought some aspects of CBS were enjoyable and even admirable (particularly the amount of context they had to situate their stories and give them larger significance), while other aspects weren’t so successful. I think the decision to gloss over Ferguson was a terrible one, especially considering how much attention that story is receiving just about everywhere else. I also thought the angles of certain stories were strange at best (I’m talking to you, oil pipeline that seems extremely significant but I somehow still know nothing about after three minutes). I’d say that these reports are definitely targeted towards an older demographic, although an argument could be made that by ending the newscast with a prompt to visit the CBS website or to log on to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites, CBS is attempting to appeal to a younger target audience. They even have little widgets right below the video that allow you to share a pre-typed Tweet or Facebook post with the click of a button. With only 3 shares on Facebook and 14 Tweets (only one of which is from an actual person, rather than an organization) however, an argument could also be made that they are somewhat failing at this endeavor.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the colorful personalities on the CBS evening newscast, and I certainly learned more than I was expecting to. That being said, I don’t think I’d tune in again. Sorry Mr. Pelley. It’s not you, it’s me.

 

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